'Kill B.' review: Dances of dominance

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'Kill B.' review: Dances of dominance
Bruno Isakovic, left, and Mia Zalukar in “Kill B,” as part of the Queer New York International Arts Festival at NYU Skirball in New York, Feb. 8, 2024. In this work, inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films, Croatian performers address the fraught director-actress relationship at its core. (Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

by Siobhan Burke

NEW YORK, NY.- Dancer Mia Zalukar lay collapsed on the stage of NYU Skirball, seemingly exhausted after a long solo — but she wasn’t doing it quite right.

“When you fall, you should be more like a dead person,” her collaborator, Bruno Isakovic, interjected, instructing her to look like less like “a worm on the floor.” She adjusted an arm to make the pose more mangled, almost cartoonishly dramatic. Isakovic approved.

This is one of many such exchanges in “Kill B.,” a 2019 work by Isakovic and Zalukar that had its United States premiere Friday evening as part of the Queer New York International Arts Festival. Organized by Croatian curator Zvonimir Dobrovic, the festival features artists from Croatia, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Germany exploring “what it is to be outside of the norm,” Dobrovic said in a curtain speech. He stressed that this outsider status is contextual; it might mean one thing in post-socialist Zagreb, Croatia, another in Sao Paulo.

For Isakovic and Zalukar, artistic partners from Croatia, the norm of most concern seems to be the traditional hierarchy between a male director and a female performer — and the abusive or ambiguous shapes it can take. Inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” movies, the decidedly brief “Kill B.” doesn’t evoke the bloody violence of the film (though there are some choice references) so much as the fraught director-actress relationship at its core.

The work debuted the year after Uma Thurman, who created her bride-assassin character with Tarantino, came forth publicly about the trauma she endured on set, when the car she was driving at the director’s insistence — “a deathbox,” she called it — crashed into a tree. In the performance, we see a video of Zalukar driving, staring straight ahead, as she speaks in voice-over about a director who “didn’t like to hear no.”

“Kill B.” both replicates and complicates similar dynamics — though never so extreme — between Isakovic and Zalukar, deliberately questioning the equality of their partnership. It begins with Zalukar sitting amid a tangle of white tulle and discarded film reels, appearing confused and unable to move her legs. Hrvoje Niksic’s sound design sets an ominous mood. With visible (and audible) effort, Zalukar drags herself across the ground and up onto a platform, a stage upon the stage, where she grasps for microphones that amplify her cries.

Isakovic follows her with a live-feed camera, magnifying her struggle, her image projected onto a large screen. He wears pants and a collared shirt; she wears a tank top and underwear (and later, a yellow tracksuit recalling Thurman’s signature “Kill Bill” look). His unbothered remove, in contrast to her vulnerability, feels almost cruel.

The most satisfying moments in “Kill B.” emerge when that controlling dynamic breaks or inverts. Zalukar’s wailing begins to echo and blend with the foreboding soundscape, and as a steady, more hopeful beat kicks in, she rises to her feet, letting the rhythm move her, no longer trapped. The scene switches to a rehearsal, in which Isakovic inundates her with notes on a structured improvisation, demanding “relaxed twitching” and insisting she crawl into the audience. (“Just use their negative space!”) By turns funny, disturbing and tedious, this goes on for so long that it comes as a surprise when Zalukar flips the script, criticizing Isakovic for not yelling louder, for sounding fake.

She has a point. The acting in “Kill B.” is often self-conscious, and it’s unclear to what extent this is intended. Either way, it gives the work a strained, murky quality, as if the performers, even in their more intimate clashes, were just getting to know each other.

Still, “Kill B.” stirs up intriguing questions about power and agency in collaboration. When Zalukar, after an awkward dinner scene, offers to show Isakovic a dance she’s been working on, her movement looks a lot like the “twitching” they rehearsed, as if her limbs are being pulled in many directions at once. Without constant interruption, though, it also looks alive.

Queer New York International Arts Festival

Through Saturday at NYU Skirball, Manhattan; nyuskirball.org.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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